11/17/2014 04:25 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2015

Family Engagement and Philanthropy in a Graduate School of Psychology

Mental illness touches all of us. Rarely does a day pass without news that highlights the need for quality mental health services across our society. One way to help is to increase graduate training opportunities for aspiring psychologists. That is precisely what the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology (MSPP) is doing. Grounded in experiential learning, MSPP has 750 students and 100 faculty members and is the largest educator of psychology graduate students in the Northeast. My role as Special Assistant to the President of MSPP is to advance the profile of the school, and this includes increasing philanthropy.

MSPP is committed to addressing the mental health needs of the most vulnerable groups within our society. Our Lucero Mental Health Program trains MSPP students to provide culturally-sensitive psychological services to the Latino population. Our Train Vets to Treat Vets curriculum prepares student veterans to render mental health care to military personnel and their families. Our PATHWAYS project trains students to reduce truancy rates and increase graduation rates in Boston public high schools.

MSPP's major revenue is tuition, with additional support from continuing education courses, grants and philanthropy. The majority of MSPP students obtain loans or hold jobs to help pay their tuition. If MSPP is to grow its student body, offer scholarships, have a diverse population, and expand its specialty programs, fundraising becomes vitally important. In an effort to increase philanthropy, we searched the literature for strategies used by other graduate schools. Our keywords were "fundraising graduate school" and we excluded from our findings articles about MBA programs since these are traditionally well-financed.

Our search yielded an article titled Fundraising for Graduate Education from Marquette University (Wiener, B., and Blumenthal A., Council of Graduate Schools, 2009) and a 2014 report from Teachers College, Columbia University titled TC Launches $300 Million Fundraising Campaign for the Future. The Wiener and Blumenthal article highlighted the importance of communicating stories to potential donors. The Teachers College report drove home the point to aim high and "go for it." Unlike Marquette University and Teachers College, MSPP is a free-standing graduate school with modest resources for development. The larger donations to MSPP tend to come from board members as well as from alumni with affluent families. In part because the students are beyond the age of dependency, plans for cultivating involvement of their families and building a future for the school have largely been neglected. Upon investigation we found that, for similar reasons, MSPP did not gather information on the families of their students.

To learn how graduate schools collect contact information on families of students, we reviewed psychology graduate admission applications from 10 institutions: Adler School of Professional Psychology; American School of Professional Psychology/Argosy; Boston College; California School of Professional Psychology; Chicago School of Professional Psychology; Marquette University; Nova Southeastern University; Stanford University (School of Humanities/Science); Suffolk University; Teachers College, Columbia University. We also looked at applications from Harvard Medical School (HMS), Boston College School of Social Work, Marquette University School of Law, New England College of Optometry, and New England Law | Boston.

Of the 10 graduate psychology applications reviewed, only Stanford University's School of Humanities/Science requests information on families. The application asks for the names of parents/guardians along with their occupations, employers, job titles, college names, and highest degrees earned. HMS, which uses a centralized application service provided by the Association of American Colleges, requests parents'/guardians' names, occupations, and highest education levels. HMS also asks, "What was the income level of your family during the majority of your life from birth to age 18?" New England Law | Boston's application requests the name and street address of next of kin/emergency contact, as well as parents'/guardians' names, occupations, highest levels of education, email addresses and street addresses. We introduced a plan to follow the lead of Stanford, HMS, and New England Law | Boston by requesting email and postal addresses of family members as part of our online admissions process.

To begin a family initiative, we hosted a barbecue at MSPP for incoming students and their families during orientation week of the 2014-2015 academic year. Faculty leaders and student coordinators mingled with the guests, answering their questions and offering a tour of the school. A month later, we held a Forum, "Post-Graduation: What to Expect," to address questions that all MSPP students and their families have about life after graduation: How do I find a job that is a good "fit"? What will I earn? How will I balance career, family and other interests? Panelists included recent graduates from all departments - Clinical Psychology, Counseling Psychology, Organizational and Leadership Psychology, and School Psychology - as well as from our Latino Mental Health Program and our Train Vets to Treat Vets Program.

We will report back at the end of the school year on our progress in family engagement and philanthropy in a graduate school of psychology.